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The Practice Corner: How Being an Attorney Can Make People Never Want Your Legal Opinion

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

I am a lawyer. Like many of you, there are times when my friends who are not lawyers will seek my legal advice. Either they do not want to nor intend to pay me for my expertise, or perhaps they are all just waiting for the invoice that I never send (Note to self: send invoices, wait by mailbox for checks, retire far earlier than intended). However, there are many other times when I feel that, due to current events or misinformation in the media, I feel obligated to set some record straight with those around me. I do not mean to rouse any rabble by doing so, but it can be torturous to remain reticent when I hear people perpetuate falsity when it comes to the law.

For instance, on April 23, 2014, Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation that has been dubbed by many critics as the “Guns Everywhere Bill.” Without a doubt, the law expands the parameters of where and how law-abiding Georgians can carry their firearms. The proponents of the law call it the “Safe Carry Protection Act.” Now, regardless of whether or not you believe the law is prudent or whether you believe it is legislative lunacy, the discussion has been derailed by a tragic workplace shooting that took place last week. A FedEx package handler, Geddy L. Kramer, wounded six people at his workplace before killing himself. The only weapon he had was a shotgun.

The reason I say that the discussion regarding the new law has been derailed is precisely because, as of the time I write this article, if you Google “Guns Everywhere Bill Georgia,” the first result for news is the FedEx shooting. Kramer did not take advantage of any new provisions of Georgia law when he took a shotgun to his workplace to kill and maim others. He wasn’t carrying a concealed shotgun. The new law did not enable him to commit the horrific acts he committed. There is no relation between this unthinkable act of violence and Georgia’s new law, or Georgia’s pre-existing laws pertaining to the carrying of firearms.

This is not to say that Georgia’s new law will not be pertinent in later shooting incidents involving concealed weapons in some of the now permissible locations and scenarios. For the moment, this FedEx shooting has been seized by opponents of the new Georgia law as an opportunity to point out where Georgia has gone off the deep end. So, as a lawyer, when I find myself around my friends who are quick to look at this incident and say, “See, any idiot could see this was going to happen!” I feel compelled to draw the distinction between apples and oranges.

The bigoted remarks and beliefs of L.A. Clippers owner (soon to be former owner) Don Sterling provided me yet another event where I have felt compelled to set the record straight. For those who are unfamiliar, Sterling had a conversation with a girlfriend in which he asked that she not bring African American guests with her to Clippers games, and he went on to make some other moronic, small-minded statements. Unbeknownst to Sterling, his girlfriend recorded the conversation and leaked it to the media. Rightfully, Don Sterling has suffered criticism in the media and from all sides, as well as losing valuable sponsorships and being subjected to severe sanctions by the NBA.

Social media lit up with post after post after post of people outraged by such ridiculous and offensive comments. I, myself, did not feel that I was drawn into the drama until I began to see posts that questioned how Sterling’s First Amendment rights could be trampled. Now, many people focused on the legality of recording private conversations, which is a separate discussion altogether. Georgia’s law is different than that of California, and although I have participated in conversations about this and the policy behind different states’ laws, these discussions are of a more particularized category that troubled me to jump in recently.

This incident does not involve the First Amendment. Don Sterling was not arrested for saying what he said. None of his constitutional rights have been denied him for being a bigot or saying racist things. He was not recorded by the police or any state actor. In short, he was and remains to be free to be a racist, to think the way he thinks, and to speak the way he chooses. He may suffer consequences for his words and his beliefs, but the First Amendment does not guarantee him the right to own a basketball team. It does not require sponsors to continue to support an organization that they feel is detrimental to their overall business vision. This is the freedom of contract.

When I have been having a discussion about free speech as it relates to Sterling, I have been inviting many of the folks I talk to to approach their boss at work and tell them about a time they thought their boss made a really stupid decision. They have the freedom to say this in this country. They may very well find that are freed up for a vacation the next day, and the next week, and the next week after that. They may find that they need to find a new job with a new boss. This is not a First Amendment issue.

Being a lawyer is not a prerequisite to having these kinds of conversations. As a lawyer, as someone who deals with learning, understanding, and applying the law on a daily basis, I feel a responsibility to participate in certain conversations even when I would like to just walk away. For me personally, these moments are more compelling when they deal with the Bill of Rights, but there are other times where I find myself chiming in. I should make it very clear at this point that I am not butting in on private conversations between people on MARTA, at the grocery store, or in any other setting where my participation would not be socially acceptable. I am instead just having these conversations with friends, many of whom are quick to make broad leaps from a specific incident to a more categorical panic or outrage.

When I passed the Bar, there was no requirement that I correct false beliefs about the law. However, I imagine that if a doctor hears someone making some ludicrous and inaccurate statement about medicine, he or she would likely feel a similar call to try to set things straight. I am also not convinced that I am the highest authority on any given subject, including the law (especially the law). I do not jump into these sorts of discussions with an opening line such as “Here is where you are completely wrong,” but instead I try to arrive at a mutual understanding as to what a particular law or set of laws does and see if it applies to a given circumstance.

Thus, when I have these discussions with lawyers and non-lawyers alike, I find that I am always learning. Sometimes, I might only be learning what sells stories for media outlets or what evokes visceral reactions in the public at large or my circle of friends. One thing is for certain, I am always learning.

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